Collony Collapse Disorder

Collony Collapse Disorder is the official name given to the worldwide epidemic of entire bee hives dying or simply disappearing by the thousands. I have a feeling that this issue goes deeper then our current science can explain, that it is a reflection of a dominant relationship of extraction/ control / manipulation between humans and nature. However this video does a good job of explaining the part of the story that can be put in our current box of logic and rationality:

We Lost One Beehive

Yesterday while I was chopping wood outside on a surprisingly warm February day (of which we’ve had quite a few) Andreea called from far away Bucharest. She asked me to look in on the hives, she felt the bees calling for help. A few weeks ago we listened to the hives (but didn’t open them – so as not to disturb the bees) and both were rumbling with life.

I stopped, collected what wood was already cut and stored it and went off to have a look at the bees. I was sad to find that the first and larger hive had many bees that were all dead. It looked like they died of starvation (the combs they were on were emptied) even though there was still an ample supply of honey on other combs.
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It blows my mind that this next image looks like it was taken from a living hive – yet all the bees were motionless. I am assuming they are dead and not caught in some kind of time-warp tarp … though I am not convinced … so I left them there as is.

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And there were quite a few combs with honey stores (more towards the front of the hive):

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It would have so much “easier” to witness this had the honey-stores been empty … but we left them plenty of honey (all the honey) … and yet this happened.

I opened the second hive only shortly to find that is was vibrant with life. The bees were pretty aggressive and did not respond to the water spraying … so I made it a very short visit (I didn’t bring the smoker with me). I was surprised because it was the smaller of the two hives, where the bees were transferred (from a standard hive to the new top-bar hive) a few weeks after the first hive (both transfers were difficult to do – in the end the only thing that worked was shaking them in). In this hive the bees has less time to build new comb and collect honey.

A few more potentially relevant facts:

  1. The bees arrived during a difficult drought year where there was limited flowering. Still they seemed to build up quite impressive honey stores. The first hive (the one that got a head start) was almost full of top-bars (that we gradually added), many of them laden with honey.
  2. We didn’t collect any honey for ourselves from either of the hives (we were looking forward to the leftovers of spring).
  3. This winter started early – the first snowfall came in the beginning of December (which brough a snow cover we only saw at the end of January the previous year).
  4. This winter has been surprisingly warm. February is usually the coldest month yet this year, so far, days have seen above-zero temperatures (with some days as high as 7c) though most nights drop below freezing … and the forecast seems to be for similar weather in the foreseeable future.
  5. I’ve heard speculations that this mild winter may continue longer than usual (into April).
  6. In the first hive, because it was so alive, vibrant and full (literally of populated top-bars) I gradually shifted (in season) the bars around to get the leftover bars from the standard frames (that were chopped and cropped into the top-bar form) toward the back of the hive – so that they become honey-storage combs that we could gradually remove from the hive (to replace with properly fitting standard top-bars).

I am asking myself:

  1. What went wrong with the first hive? Was it starvation or could it be something else? My feeling is that I was wrong to intervene in moving the bars around. It seems that the bees continued to use the older comb for brood – and those bars ended up being at the back of the hive while the honey-stores were in front (that is how I found the hive yesterday). I am also guessing that the due to the warmer temperatures the bees have been less dormant and more active – causing them to consume more of their winter-stores. I am guessing the this combination of mistake & circumstance are what caused them to starve – though I am not sure.
  2. How should I have gone about moving out the chop-and-crop bars? The more I think about this question the more I become convinced that the best thing was, from the beginning – when we transferred the hives, to (1) give up all the brood that came with old hives that we purchase; (2) transfer only a few frames of honey to support the bees as they establish themselves in the new hive; (3) let them build new comb and grow new brood directly in place in the new hives.
  3. Would it be OK to move some of the remaining stores from the dead-hive into the new hive for the remaining bees to use? My instincts tell me that this should be OK. Both colonies came from the same keeper and lived together side-by-side on our property. They were exposed to similar worlds all along – so that “crossing honey” should not be a problem.

Update: I’ve posted a question on this topic at the Biobees forum.

Romania, the EU, Bees and Collony Collapse Disorder

A couple of months ago I wrote a post about potentitally destructive effects of EU “support” on Romanian beekeepers (with a followup on the overall effect of EU “support” in Romania). This morning I came across two more videos (on a thread at permies.com) on the subject of bees.

More pertaining to the subject of bees is the second movie in which there is practical advice on how to cope with the famed collany collapse disorder which also touches on the some of things I’ve talked about in the previous two posts and leads into natural beekeeping.

The second video is a full length movie titled “Vanishing of the Bees”. I have mixed feelings about it. The first half (give or take) of the movie offers a pretty good and moving description of the problem (collany collapse) with an occassional glimpse into alternatives – again opening a door towards alternative methods of beekeeping which are mentioned in passing. Then the movie takes what I can only describe as a false turn. It essentially moves the spotlight away from beekeepers and places a blaming finger (which the beekeepers happily embrace) on insecticides and pesticides (which due to recurring use on vast monocultures has attacked and weakened bees to the point of devastation).

The abusive beekeepers in the first half of the movie are suddently transformed into victims (complete with tears) who fight, like brave warriors, against pesticides and insecticides on behalf of society.

  • I cringed at every moment of the film in which these “would be warriors” were shown working with their bees – abusive, violent and agressive.
  • I cringed at the normative idiocy (regardless of the abuse towards the bees) of transporting beehives across the country on huge trucks to where pollination is needed. An all-around indutrialized machine operating at mind-blowing inefficiency creating incomprehensible waves of destruction (effecting soils, plants, bees, people …).
  • I cringed at the hypcocrisy of these beekeepers who never cared about the bees until it hurt their financial bottom line.
  • I cringed at the implied conclusion that if we manage to get rid of insecticides and pesticides the the beekeepers can get back to their abusive treatment of bees.

Still, I think the movie is worth watching. It shines much needed light on the awareness that all of life on this planet exists in a complex and diverse co-existence and that we, as human beings, are participants in this marvelous co-dependency (and not controllers of it):

This is the direction in which EU “support” is encouraging Romanian agriculture.

A few Euros from the EU

Yesterdays post on bees and the EU has turned into a much appreciated debate with Sam. He has responded generously. My reply/comment was long … almost a post, so I am reposting it here for the sake of archival continuity. My main point is that the EU subsidies are not really supporting Romanian farmers but enslaving them financially and mentally (the latter being the more potent price).  I believe that is true for farming subsidies in general. However subsidies within a community/country shift energies within it … the EU subsidies are, I believe by design, stealing energy away from Romania.

So great to have a quality debate 🙂

As for the “science of bees” I believe it would come with more authority if I cited my source rather then regurgitated what I’ve learned from it: http://biobees.com/articles.php.

I would specifically refer you to two articles:

The future of natural beekeeping: http://ezinearticles.com/?The-Future-of-Natural-Beekeeping&id=7287954

Sustaining the honeybee: http://ezinearticles.com/?Sustaining-the-Honeybee&id=1450967

The people you are buying honey from in the market are most probably small local producers – they are the typical industrial producer. These are too busy running their operations to sell in the market. They sell their produce in bulk to large aggregators.

As for what Romanian industrial beekeepers actually do in regard to the bees – they only do what lines their pockets with most honey/money (not what any association defines as proper … you of all people should know what a wild-west this country is when it comes to regulations). With the risk of generalizing … traditional beekeeping (like traditional agriculture) is ignorant and destructive. It is easy to confuse love of honey-money with love of bees. Given what I know about bees I have witnessed very little love … though I have heard it spoken. I don’t buy it. I’ve witnessed honey-frames with brood (just born bees) emerging (literally) being inserted into those honey extraction spinners (you can also see brood being disturbed/injured in the beautifully produced movie – as a frame is cut open in preparation for extraction) … is that what they mean by love of the bees?

An issue unique to Romania I would like to address further is those “few Euros from the EU”. I will use milk to make my point. Most Romanian small-medium producers sell most of their milk to a milk truck that makes rounds every morning – they get ~80 bani per liter + if they meet agreed quotas they are supposed to get bonuses (though from what we’ve heard the bonuses are being delayed big time). We buy our milk directly from them – fresh and warm – for 2 lei per liter. The milk truck container is preloaded with chlorine as a preservative … so already the milk is compromised … the first step in a long process of deterioration until the poor substitute for milk arrives in the supermarkets for 4 or 5 lei.

This system has become standard. Producers don’t need to worry about sales and marketing (especially tricky with milk that can spoil) and everything they produce gets “purchased”. As a result they no longer produce any other higher-value products. We have not yet been able to find (in our and in neighboring villages) a local producer that makes butter or cream (smantana). They don’t bother anymore. Their world has been marginalized by those few EU Euros … which provides them a bare minimum. They cannot better their lives with it … they can at best be sustained where they are. Ironically their only chance at progress is by quantitative growth = more cows. The results is over-crowded and dying pastures (over grazed, over compacted…) and terribly diminished soil fertility.

Those few Euros are how a fantastic and diverse ecosystem of small producers have been reigned in. If they were a few large producers organized as corporations then they could have been taken over by standard market dynamics. However in this marvelous Romanian ecology that was not the situation. So they came up with a creative solution which appears in the form of “a few Euros from the EU” – a majestic system of control.

With Cutia Taranului we are trying to show milk-producers that they can produce and sell (reliably and consistently) added value products like cheese, cream and butter and make much more money and have much more control over their lives. I cannot begin to describe to you the huge mental barriers that are locked in place thanks to those “few Euros from the EU”.

And I am convinced that similar patterns, destructive to both nature and people, are in play with the bees and the honey. Money is being used to put in place misdirected motivations.

With natural bee-keeping we (=Andreea and I) don’t need a honey-extractor of any kind, we use inexpensive home-made top-bar hives (instead of the expensive, complicated system of standard beekeeping), we don’t injure any bees (after we’ve made the difficult transition from standard hives to top-bar hives), we only take honey that is left after the bees have made it through winter, our bees have an opportunity to fight-off potential varroa infestations on their own without us getting in the way and we will expand our apiary as we continue to develop our land providing us and the bees with more sustenance.

But, I may be crazy and wrong about this 🙂

The EU Strikes Again: Bees

Sam sent a link to this article and video about Romanian nomadic-bee-keepers. The short articles describes how UK bee-keepers have experienced a difficult year (meaning drastically reduced yields) and they are angry that the EU is supporting bee-keepers in Romania and Hungary instead of coming to their rescue. It also includes a nicely shot video of the Romanian bee-keepers:

I didn’t enjoy watching the video. I saw in it another aggressive move by the EU to inject western industrialization into the Romanian ecosystem. I’ll try to outline what I believe is really happening.

Bee Abuse

Bees are not nomadic creatures – they settle in one place, build a hive and occupy it for a long time. In late spring or early summer some the bees may swarm – which is a survival instinct in which a large part of the family leaves the hive to establish a new family. They will naturally prefer to settle in fertile areas (plenty of flowers) and may leave if a location ceases to support them. But other then that they are not nomadic.

The opposite is true. They are very sensitive to location – they have GPS-like capabilities that enable them to fly back and find the hive entry to within inches. If you move the hive just a little bit they will get confused and will have to reorient themselves to find it. That is why “Romanian nomadic bee keepers” travel only at night and have to travel large enough distances (at least a few km) so that the bees are “confused enough” so as not to try to fly back to where they remember their hives were.

Moving the bees around is an abusive behavior that goes against their nature. This of-course complements the widely used and commonly known box hives which are designed to make it easy for humans to penetrate into the hive and disturb the bees to make sure they are “working properly” and to get at their honey stores. Those smoke makers you commonly see bee-keepers use are meant to discourage the bees from attacking, which they tend to do when their homes are brutally disturbed (wouldn’t you?).

Another frequently abusive practice in standard bee-keeping is that the hive food-stores are almost completely depleted by their operators. This includes winter honey stores which the bees need to get through winter – especially the cold Romanian winters. Instead the bees are fed sugar-based syrups which are much cheaper then the actual honey. This artificial food is a poor replacement for honey and is often supplemented with medications.

The entire commercial bee-keeping paradigm is about industrialization of the natural behaviors of the bees. Moving them around is merely another abusive step towards increased efficiency at the expense of the well-being of the bees. Bee population around the world is in dire straits because of standard commercialized bee-keeping. If Romania continues its excessive bee-keeping habits it is just a matter of time until the Romanian natural bee population will be badly disrupted.

Nature Abuse

When natural systems are left alone they gravitate around a natural balance. It is true that bees play a critical role by pollinating flowers – simply put we would not have food without bees. But there can be too much of a good thing. Bee populations partake in a dynamic and natural balance in the environment – they need plenty of food and very little competition. When too many bee hives are placed in a limited area there can be too many bees resulting in hive-robbing and violence.

The increase in honey-bee population is not being met with increased natural reserves. Pastures are widely over-grazed and abused. Industrial agriculture takes over huge fields with poisoned mono-cultures. Deforestation is a huge problem in Romania. It is any wonder that industrial bee-keepers have to move around to find remote untouched still flowering locations?

Sidenote: honey-bees are not the only kind of bee and not the only pollinator. Mason bees are much better pollinators – some say 100 times better than honey-bees. So the whole “we need honey bees to pollinate our fields” pitch by the HONEY-bee industry is inaccurate, incomplete and misleading.

More worrying is that bees transport not only pollen but other chemicals. If bees have access to a field that uses pesticides and to a natural forest they will be transferring those pesticides into the otherwise untouched eco-system. When bees are moved around between locations then they carry things (natural and chemical) over from one eco-system to another. Doing so disturbs the natural order of things.

Sidenote: just in case you missed it – the pesticide issue means that there is practically no such thing as organic honey. The only way to produce truly chemical free honey is to have the bees in a location in which in a 3-5km radius (typical honey-bee range) there is absolutely no use of pesticides or insecticides. Good luck with that … anywhere in the world.

All this is being done not for the bees and not for nature, it is being done to increase productivity. A much healthier bee-keeping paradigm is smaller local apiaries – it has been present and working in Romania (and probably many other countries) for a long time without any EU support.

People Abuse

I don’t have enough direct knowledge about the financial workings of the honey-economy in Romania (like I do about the abusive milk-economy). What I do know is that most honey-producers sell their massive honey yields to large-scale marketers. If that honey reaches Romanian consumers it does so at a much higher (at least double) price. Though I wouldn’t be surprised to find that much of that honey is exported while other honey is imported into Romania (the “efficiencies” of free-market merchants can be mind-boggling).

Honey producers (I don’t believe they deserve to be called bee-keepers) enjoy a steady income since all of their yields are purchased by the aggregate marketers. This is supplemented by EU subsidies (according to the one of the interviewees in the video above a sum of 4500 euros once every three years). The producers get used to and become dependent on this system yet they have no say in it. Market prices are set (non-negotiable) by the larger marketers as are the EU subsidies.

The producers are enslaved not only by the economic realities of this system but also by its mentality. Namely abuse bees, nature and yourselves to maximize yield.

… and don’t forget these fortunate honey producers get to live in a truck filled with bee-hives … the perks just keep piling up don’t they?

Natural Bee Keeping

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This year we started natural bee-keeping with two horizontal top-bar hives. A hive in which: :

  1. We leave the bees an ample (most of the) honey supply to use as winter feed. We harvest whatever is left in spring. We may harvest some honey in summer to prevent the hive from exploding with honey.
  2. We rarely open the hives so as not to disturb the bees. We do not use a smoker. Instead we have a water sprayer at hand to simulate rain … though we rarely need to use it.
  3. We place the hives in partial shade – the bees are very productive without us needing to “encourage” them by placing the hives in full sun.
  4. The bees build their own combs out of natural wax in whatever sizes they need (instead if using pre-fabricated wax foundations).
  5. The hives are simple to build and home-made. They are built with thick wood walls to offer much better winter insulation … and the hive designs allows us to add more insulation for winter.

There is no such thing as “Nomadic bee keepers” … sheesh!

Bees: the end of the beginning

Yesterday we finally took the last step in welcoming our bees to Bhudeva. I was working (making great progress) on the mobile chicken shelter when Andreea noticed that outside the first hive we had already transferred to a top-bar-hive there was heightened activity. We can’t be sure but it looked like the bees may have been preparing to swarm (a natural instinct where a bee family splits into two resulting in many bees leaving with the active queen). We weren’t really prepared for it but we decided to place another (third) hive next to it with waxed top-bars and inviting scents and hope that if the bees do decide to swarm they may choose it as a new home. However it turned out into a much longer work session 🙂

Fortunately for us Levente was available and joined us – both out of curiosity and to help. We put the new hive in place and then opened up the living hive. For the most part things were looking good.

The hive looked thriving, there was lots of activity. The standard “chop and crop” frames were all filled with bees (we took the opportunity to gently, using a hand saw, cut off the ends of their frames so that they would not interfere with the hive’s lid). The bees did an excellent job cleaning up after the somewhat brutal chop-and-crop.

Some of the new top bars were also coming along. This one had quite a comb built up.

It was fantastic to see inside the hives (sorry … no image) chains-of-bees linked together, supposedly using their body lengths as a measuring tool in building new comb. However there were no eggs to be found … which means we may have lost/injured the queen when we made the initial transition. We did find quite a few young queens … which is when things got interesting.

We decided to do a split. So now instead of hoping that the bees move to the new hive (which wasn’t very likely) we moved into it three frames with one of the new queens. We added to it a few empty top-bars and a failed chop-and-crop bar from the original transition, with honey in it, that was left over from the initial transition. So now we had two hives populated and we managed to capture and set aside four additional young queens.

 

Then came the third hive – the one that was setup as a transitional hive. As we were warned in the forums the bees showed no signs of moving into the lower top-bar-hive. They were very active in the standard hive sitting on top of the top-bar-hive … but showed no interest in moving down. Our decision was to shake them into the top-bar-hive and remove the standard hive completely. Andreea & Levente took care of this task.

Had we been there on our own we would have a serious mistake that Levente wisely avoided. We would have taken the standard hive down – and that would have probably aggrevated the bees greatly. Instead, Levente opened the hive, inspected the frames one by one and then shook the bees directly into the standard hive – which of course was still sitting on the top-bar-hive … and this time the bees, with no choice left, moved down. They were very frustrated and there were a few stings … however, with the help of much smoke, Andreea & Levente managed to get all the frames out, examined, shook .. and the bees to move into their new home. We also put in the modified follower-boards to prevent bee-leaks.

 

Because there were three of us and the event was less traumatic we realized that we could easily chop-and-crop a few frames of brood and honey. I had a table and tools setup nearbye and indeed we got 4 frames chopped-and-cropped and reinserted into the top-bar-hive. This time, as I was chopping the frames I also cut the remaining top-bar down to size. Most of the bees found their way into the hive though there was a small bundle under the hive (attached to the netting).

 

Andreea completed the day by manually squeezing honey from the crops left over from the standard frames. She aso found and left in the honey plenty of pollen. 

This all happened yesterday. Today the two primary hives are very active and the third, split hive, less so. We’ll see how it goes.

We are relieved and happy. We are looking forward to the bees settling in their new homes. We still want to phase out the remaining converted top-bars … but other then that it looks like the transition has been completed. We are expecting our acacia trees to bloom in the coming weeks … and that should result in plenty of honey-stores for the bees … maybe even some for us 🙂

This transition had a wonderful and unexpected side-effect. Levente was very much opposed to our decision to abort the standard hives in favor of top-bar-hives. He is already used to us doing things differently and he usually watches us from the sidelines with curiosity. With the bees he was outright against what we were doing. However yesterday he saw that the bees were actually doing very well. He was impressed. We gifted him with the remaining 6 frames and the 4 queens. We then drove over to their place where we sat with Valentin, his brother-in-law, who is a professional beekeeper (standard hives). This time it was Levente telling Valentin about the top-bar-hives and showing off our queens … and Valentin also seemed curios and impressed. So the bees did an excellent job of making a case for top-bar hives … and so it goes 🙂

 

Bees Take 2

Following the difficult first hive transition we chose a (supposedly) softer approach with the second bee-hive. We adopted Phil Chandler’s approach of a natural migration from a standard hive into a top-bar-hive. I started with an idea for a kind of apron-adapter which would enable us to mount the existing hive directly onto the designated top-bar-hive (instead of building a dedicated intermediate box for the transition).

When that seemed to work out OK I prepared a few top-bars with passage holes enabling the bees to move between the hives. I organized the bars so that there was one standard (sealed) bar and one passable bar in the hope that in the future we will have to transition less bars into regular sealed top-bars.

With everything ready to go we waited for a day with good conditions for placing the top-bar hive in place of the existing hive and then mounting the existing hive on it. It should have been a simple procedure. It wasn’t.

To place the existing hive onto the top-bar-hive we had to separate it from its bottom. It didn’t take much effort but when I got the first crack open bees poured out and attacked. Within seconds I was stung numerous times. We decided to follow through and within a few more seconds had the standard hive mounted on top of the top-bar-hive. We left it sticking out towards the front a bit so that the bees would be able to continue to enter following the known scent. Only later in the evening I came back and closed it completely. When I did so, the slightest move of the hive caused the bees to stir like crazy. An unnerving sensation.

We then realized there was another slight problem. This top-bar-hive was the one I tried to build out of construction-grade lumber I planed on my own. My work conditions and tools do not enable me to reach a uniformly planed surface so the seal with the follower boards was not good enough and bees were leaking out from there rather then from the hive openings. We left it as is for a few days … until today I came up with a simple solution. I glued (not sure the glue will hold) and stapled some pond liner that is sticking out from the sides and bottom.

I tested the solution in the 3rd hive and it looks like its working fine. We have unsteady weather, but as soon as possible we will place in the modified follower boards in the hope it will encourage the bees to use the existing openings.

It seems that the bees are much less agitated around Andreea then they are with me. The day after the transfer I sat a good distance away from the hives to watch the bees for a few minutes and a bee came after me and stung me in the forehead. Andreea spoke to Ildi and Levente (our neighbors) about this and Ildi said that she has the same problem. The bees are perfectly fine around Levente but very aggressive towards her. I wonder what it could be?

We are committed to natural beekeeping (we don’t consider standard beekeeping an option – but we are going to purchase a smoker just in case) but we are also a bit exhausted and overwhelmed by our first contact with it.

With this post published I am off to visit Biobees forums. We hope to find some comforting and advice on how to move forward from where we are now.